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Federal Law Mandates 'Abstinence-Only' Sex Ed

Federal Law Mandates 'Abstinence-Only' Sex Ed

In order to accomplish their goals, members of the religious right in the late 1980s began campaigning for -- and winning -- seats on local school boards across the country. The effect on sex ed has been significant. Since 1992, SIECUS' Community Advocacy Project has tracked more than 500 local controversies in 50 states around the issue of sexuality education. The following examples illustrate a number of current trends:

  • School board members in Bunn, NC ordered three chapters removed from a ninth-grade health textbook because the material did not adhere to state law mandating abstinence-only sexuality education. The chapters, covering AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, marriage and parenting, and contraception, were literally sliced out of the books and thrown away.
  • In September 1996, by a vote of 7-2, school board members in Sheboygan, WI, virtually eliminated a sexuality education program for pupils in kindergarten through grade 3 that focused on the family and human anatomy despite strong support for the program by the district's Human Growth and Development Advisory Committee.
  • A group of parents forced the Penn-Harris-Madison School District in South Bend, IN, to institute an "opt-in" policy requiring parents to provide explicit, written permission before their children could be enrolled in sex education classes. A growing trend, this move seeks to replace the standard, more workable "opt-out" policy, in which parents who object to the classes must request that their children be excused from attendance.
  • In March 1994, 16 months after the religious right achieved a majority on the Vista, CA, Unified School Board, board members voted to replace a comprehensive sex-ed program with "Sex Respect: The Option of True Sexual Freedom," a fear-based, abstinence-only curriculum. When the board's attorney warned that "Sex Respect" might not meet state guidelines because it included misleading and inaccurate information, was racially biased, and supported specific religious beliefs, board members directed a new attorney to suggest modifications to the curriculum that would bring it into compliance with state law.

Abstinence-Only Vs. Comprehensive Sex Ed

Although the controversy over sexuality education is being played out in a number of ways, the abstinence-only movement is clearly having the biggest impact. Abstinence-only programs are reportedly used in about 25% of the nation's roughly 16,000 school districts. Among the most popular: "Sex Respect." (See the related story on Sex Respect.)

Based on fundamentalist Christian beliefs, they teach that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The programs rely on fear tactics that, in effect, tell adolescents they are putting their lives at risk if they engage in premarital sex. "They tell kids they're going to go blind, get a disease, never be able to get pregnant, and ultimately die," said Monica Rodriguez, SIECUS' director of education. "That's it. That's how they get kids to be abstinent."

Experts say the approach does not work. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit group that conducts reproductive health research, policy analysis and public education, teens who have participated in abstinence-only programs may be at greater risk for pregnancy and STDs once they become sexually active because they lack enough accurate information to protect themselves.

According to a 1996 report by the Institute, 56% of young women and 73% of young men have had intercourse by age 18. In response, comprehensive programs discuss abstinence in a broader context, giving youth who choose to become sexually active the information they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. They also emphasize skills that kids need to truly "say no." "They learn how to get up the guts to say no, how to say it, negotiate it, stick to it," said Rodriguez.

Advocates of comprehensive sexuality education agree with Rodriguez, who says the federal government's funding of abstinence-only education is "dominating the discussion and energy around sexuality education." In Rodriguez's words, "Money talks."

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